Don’t Know Much About History

The most unsurprising news of the day was a report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress that America’s schools are doing a poor job of teaching history and civics. They’ve quantified the problem with some truly appalling numbers on the students who are even considered proficient in these subjects by today’s lax standards, and we thank them for the service, but they’re not telling us anything we haven’t already noticed from our daily encounters with our fellow citizens.
Most Americans rarely talk about the issues of the day, in our experience, but when the talk does stray beyond sports and gossip and other reality shows we are routinely struck by how very impassioned the opinions are, how little information seems to be backing them up, and how quickly even the most adamantly opinionated will retreat from the basic sorts of questions that a well-educated citizen would ask before reaching even tentative conclusions. Here in Kansas you’ll a lot of grousing about the state budget these days, for instance, but we’ve yet to hear any of it from someone who can make a remotely close guess about how much is being spent or where it’s going or how it compares to other states, and they seem strangely proud of their ignorance about the economic arguments advanced by their opponents, or about economics at all. When the conversation occasionally veers into some historical perspective, we are invariably flabbergasted to find how very little people about even the recent past, and how much of what they think they know is provably wrong.
We’d like to attribute this to our unfortunate luck in our conversational encounters, but we find the same lack of information understanding throughout the broader public debate. Journalists report that a massive influx of unskilled labor won’t depress wages for unskilled laborers, as if the law of supply and demand has somehow been repealed, the president can’t reproach Christians for the Crusades, as if they hadn’t been preceded by hundreds of years of steadily enriching Islamic imperialism, academics ascribe to the conventional wisdom that the financial crisis of ’08 was caused by deregulation and the financial industry’s greed, as if regulations hadn’t required banks to make risky loans that an enlightened self-interest would have otherwise declined, and almost everyone seems willing to ascribe the most dastardly motives for anyone who disagrees with those conclusions they’ve reached without any information. It’s a sorry state of discourse in America, which likely has much to do with the sorry state of affairs.
The narcissism of the the age is probably partly responsible, as so many of the people we talk seem to have acquired such healthy self-esteem from their public schooling that they have little use for anything that happened before their blessed arrival or might happen after their tragic departure, but we mostly blame the schools. According to a woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis “the curriculum rarely engages students,” which seems obvious, but she cites a study by the University of Central Florida which found “74 percent of middle school students report that they dislike social studies class due to the emphasis on reading from the textbook, rote-memorization, and note-taking,” which is not so convincing. We wouldn’t expect a bunch of ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school students to understand that reading from textbooks and committing essential facts to memory and taking notes are all unavoidable tasks when acquiring an education, although we had hoped that people working for places with highfalutin names like the National Center for Policy Analysis and the University of Central Florida would know that, but we can hardly blame the youngsters for thinking that what’s in their textbooks and the facts they’re expected to memorize and the notes they taking down from the current generation of civics and history teachers are not worth the effort.
So far as we can glean from the tirades about social justice that we overhear in the local hipster dives and the jokes on the Daily Show and the lines on the president’s teleprompter, what history is being taught in the schools these days is a relentlessly depressing tale of oppression and exploitation and environmental rapine by some nebulous white capitalist Christian patriarchal power structure. We’re all for a warts-and-all telling of America’s and western civilization’s history, but this warts-only approach is conspicuously lacking in the sort of heroism that made us want to read on and remember the main points and take notes, and even an ill-educated and snot-nosed middle school student will intuitively understand that it does little to explain the world of opportunities that they’ll eventually inhabit, and even those inclined to believe in their eternal status as victims of cruel world they never made will note that this version of history offers them no viable solutions. The civics classes similarly dispiriting, and so lacking in the vigorous competition of our society’s great ideas that those who graduate on to college are given “trigger warnings” about the potentially upsetting notions that once fueled the great advances of America and the West and offered “safe spaces” full of stuffed dolls and puppy videos to escape from the trauma of confronting a truly diverse and complex world.
The woman at the National Center for Policy Analysis recommends getting more students involved in competitive debate, and at an earlier age, and that helpful suggestion is admirably backed by the group’s financial support for such programs, but even that once-stubborn redoubt of genuinely rigorous education has lately succumbed to all that race-class-gender nonsense. Our only advice is to get more children into private schools like the one a young friend of ours attends, where they teach hard math, and classical history with the warts as well as the parts about freedom and the rule of law and the accumulation of knowledge, and how to think through a problem by beginning with all the relevant knowable information, and plenty of reading from textbooks and memorizing key facts and taking notes and all the rest of those unavoidable tasks of acquiring an education. They’re telling an engaging story at that school, and our young friend seems to think it’s well worth the effort to learn it, and we can’t see why that sort of thing wouldn’t work at any other school.

— Bud Norman

Motive, Results, and All the Hubbub

There’s still a lot of talk about President Barack Obama’s patriotism and religiosity, or lack thereof, so we figure we might as well weigh in.
The questions have persisted for the past seven years or so, ever since Obama was first campaigning for the presidency, but the latest round in the ongoing debate was prompted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s remark during a recent speech that “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America.” This commonplace opinion of course provoked outrage from the press, which immediately demanded that every prominent Republican repudiate the idea or be tarred as the sort of America-hating traitors who would question a political opponent’s patriotism. The first to be grilled was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who was present at the speech and is a frontrunner for the next Republican presidential nomination, but just about anyone else whose name might come up in a conversation about the race was eventually obliged to opine on the matter. Most took the position that they’d rather criticize the results Obama’s policies are having on America than speculate about his motives, which strikes us as a reasonable and respectful stance for an opposition party to take, but apparently even Republicans are expected to profess their faith in Barack Obama’s undying love for his country. Anything less, according to The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, is symptomatic of some dread psychological impairment called “Obama Derangement Syndrome.”
Any skepticism regarding the president’s Christianity is “insidious agnosticism,” according to The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, which is what happens when the press inevitably starts pressing Republicans about the president’s true religious beliefs. Walker was naturally the first to be asked about what lurks deep in the president’s heart and mind, and scandalized the press by saying that he did not presume to know, and soon the rest of the rest of the potential Republican field had spoken more or less the same outrageous slander at the president, with even Giuliani falling back on the same sensible position. Polls were trotted out showing that a sizable minority of the American public suspects the president is secretly Muslim, much tsk-taking was done about how right-wing media had so slyly perpetuated such a slanderous slur, although there’s certainly nothing wrong with the president being Muslim, which is after all a Religion of Peace and part of the fabric of American history, as the president has often pointed out, and the clear implication was made that those Republicans have gone mad with their disrespect of both the presidency and the United States of America for which it stands.
We can’t recall the press insisting on such institutional respect back when President Chimpy McBushitler occupied the Oval Office and the “Bush Derangement Syndrome” was coined, and former Vice President Al Gore was shrieking that “He betrayed our country” and Keith Olbermann was doing his “you, sir, are a Nazi” diatribes to applause from all the right people, and when candidate Barack Obama was blasting the “unpatriotic” half-trillion dollar deficits that he would soon double, and on the innumerable other occasions when prominent Democrats impugned the opposition’s motives, but the rule against questioning an opponent’s patriotism is flexible that way. The press no doubt hopes they can portray the Republicans as crazed conspiracy theorists with an irrational hated of the First Black President, but they should be worried that the questions persist after so many years.
One didn’t have to be tuned into Fox News to hear the president say he believed in American exceptionalism only to the extent that British or Greek believed in British or Greek exceptionalism, or when his wife said that first time she’d felt proud to be an American was when the country seem poised to her elect her husband president, or when he apologized for America’s “arrogance” and “dismissiveness” toward Europe or its past aggressions against the underdeveloped nations, and it’s hard to see where the policies resulting from these inclinations has furthered America’s interests abroad. The “fundamental transformation” of America that candidate Obama promised has delivered similarly desultory results at home, and although recent economic growth can be damned with the faint praise of outperforming Europe the administration seems as intent as ever on emulating the European model. The president has written about his conversion to Christianity through a preacher who once thundered “God damn America” from the pulpit, he told The New York Times about how the Muslim call to prayer was one of the “most beautiful sounds” he has heard, he frequently extols the greatness of Islam and his most notable recent reference to Christianity was a warning that it should not “get on a high horse” because of long-ago episodes as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, and he told the United Nations that “the future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam,” none of which are the kinds of things that Christians usually say. The policies that have followed from such inclinations have resulted in the spread of radical Islam throughout much of the Middle East, leaving all sorts of nastiness in its wake and encouraging the continued terroristic attacks on the west, and the best efforts of the press can not erase all possible doubt about the reasons.
Which is not to say that we question the president’s love of country or abiding Christian faith. He might well love America so much that he wants to turn it into Europe, and have arrived at some revolutionary understanding of Christianity that acknowledges Mohammad as the true prophet who must not be slandered with any doubts about his prophecy, and in any case he seems alarmingly confident that he’s doing what’s best for the country and the entire world. Most liberals we know pride themselves on their less-than-fulsome assessment of America, an anecdotal observation borne out by polling data, but they consider this a patriotic chore they must perform lest America become too proud of itself. At this late date in a lame duck presidency we’re more concerned about the results, which we and a number of soon-to-be-beheaded Christians find displeasing, and we’re willing to forgive any Republican contenders who are insufficiently effusive¬†about the president’s pureness of heart.

— Bud Norman

A Guilt-Ridden History

There was so much to abhor in President Barack Obama’s oration at last Thursday’s annual prayer breakfast that one hardly knows where to begin. The sermon featured the usual ahistorical recounting of western civilization’s past sins, the usual attempt to mitigate the contemporary sins of western civilization’s enemies, and the usual haughty air of moral superiority as he urged his subjects to be humble, but somehow it was even more infuriating than usual.
The president took the occasion of the prayer breakfast to tell his audience that “people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” and reeled off the usually litany of the Crusades and the Inquisition and slavery and Jim Crow. He seemed to think this a highly original insight into history, although it will come as no surprise to any American who has been subjected to a public education or Hollywood movies over the past many decades, and he made it all sound quite simple and damning.
There was no mention that the Crusades were a defensive war launched nearly 500 years after Islamic imperialism has begun a war of conquest that stretched from the formerly Christian Middle East far into Europe, that it happened in an era of western civilization known as the “Dark Ages” and during an era of Islamic culture known as the “Golden Age” and that the Muslims mostly got the better of it, that atrocities were common to both sides of the conflict, and that western civilization likely would not exist if not for the effort. Perhaps continued existence of western civilization is the president’s main gripe with the Crusades, and although he did not quite go so far as to say that in his address one could detect a profound sense of disappointment. Western civilization is so sexist and racist and homophobic and otherwise falls short of the president’s high moral standards, after all, so he might naturally yearn for the more open-minded attitudes on these matters that he seems to believe prevail in most of the Islamic world.
There was much brutality during the various Inquisitions, especially in the most notorious Spanish one, and at times it even exceeded the harshness of dhimmitude that was imposed on non-Muslims in the Islamic world, even if it has been exaggerated by the popular imagination, so the president can’t help but savor that. We’re still glad that the reconquista of the Iberian peninsula happened, and that it was a re-Christianized Spain that sent Christopher Columbus off to the new world and made the United States of America happened, and we can’t help wondering if the president of those United States of America is as grateful. Slavery will forever be a stain on American history, but that evil institution existed in every corner of the world from the dawn of time until western civilization largely eradicated it on Christian principles, although it remains a feature of life in Nigeria and other portions of the world where a more strident form of Islam holds sway, so it seems rather unfair to single out western civilization for the unique culpability of this sin of humanity. There were Americans who justified Jim Crow according to some strange interpretation of the Bible, and those who are still alive deserve some presidential chiding, but we wonder why the first black president couldn’t acknowledge that the civil rights movement that made his presidency possible was also rooted in the Christian faith.
Our best guess is that the president wants to tamp down any public enthusiasm for a robust resistance to the terrible deeds currently being being committed in the name of Islam. An inconveniently named outfit calling itself The Islamic State has lately been taking over large parts of what were once Syria and Iraq, and by such brutal means as mass executions, beheadings, crucifixions, and even dousing captives with gasoline and burning them alive inside steel cages, so it takes some extraordinary rhetorical exertions to convince a modern western world presently pre-occupied with same-sex marriage and trans-gender rights that it has no moral standing to object to such barbaric behavior. We are assured that the Islamic State is not at all Islamic because Islam is good and therefore anything bad can not be true Islam, a tautology that does not seem to exempt Christianity from the crimes of the Spanish Inquisition, but rather than hectoring an American public that does not by large commit atrocities in the name of Islam it should be making its case to the people who are mass executing, beheading, crucifying, and dousing captives in gasoline and setting them afire in the of the faith. They seem to have settled on a theological tautology that because Islam is good and they Islamic what they’re doing can’t be bad, and it will likely take more than a groveling apology for 500-year-old sins by people to whom we now seem to disavow any cultural connection to persuade them to act otherwise.
Our reading of history suggests it will eventually require overwhelming military force backed by the fierce will of a self-confident civilization, but the president appears confident that his ability to placate even the most implacable foe will suffice. We are advised not to “get on our high horse” and assert the superiority of our modern civilization to the ancient barbarism of the Islamic State, and this from a president who routinely bestrides a higher horse than any American politician of our recollection, and who has never hesitated to attribute the most evil intentions to his domestic political opponents, so we are not persuaded that a more supine position will be effective.
A majority of the Muslim has no appetite for the brutal conquests of the Islamic State, and some of them are bravely fighting it right now, but vast majorities can be disastrously ineffectual when pitted against a fervent minority more thoroughly convinced it is in the right. The United States and the rest of the world should be offering all possible help to the fight against the Islamic state, and surrendering its moral authority to do so can only lead to disaster.

— Bud Norman